They say you never forget your first time. In an ideal world, Katharina Wagner’s new production of Tristan and Isolde was perhaps not what this reviewer would have chosen for his initial Bayreuth experience, but there were compensations aplenty to be found in some of the singing, and especially in the superlative orchestral playing under Christian Thielemann. Not that the staging was disastrous: there were lots of interesting, at times inspired, ideas but as a whole the underlying conception was diffuse to the point of incoherence.

At Thielemann’s hands Wagner’s famous Prelude unfurled in a tightly controlled arc. The opening bars, so often arrhythmic, were strictly in tempo here save the obligatory lengthening of the third note in the cellos. The results never sounded driven or forced; rather, there was a welcome sense of two in a bar (two groups of three, to be technical) from the outset. The famous sunken pit at the Festspielhaus allowed the winds to be heard clearly without forcing, and the dovetailing between different sections of the strings had an almost choreographic quality. While Thielemann created plenty of imaginative tonal shadings, it was his pacing that was particularly masterful, so that even after the high point matters never felt anti-climactic or lacking direction. Much of what followed was marked by the same imaginative control of detail.

The curtain rose onto a grey, geometric set, a complicated series of industrial-style gantries and staircases, some of which subsequently moved around à la Hogwarts. Playing the interpretative game that a Regie [literally, ‘directorial’, i.e. strongly interventionist] production requires of its audience, one could relate the different levels on which the singers were positioned to the different parts of the ship which was the composer’s setting for Act I. In a strong departure from the libretto, Tristan and Isolde were eager to come to grips from the outset, with their sidekicks physically having to keep them apart. In Scene 5 they finally managed to isolate themselves from their chaperones, and straightaway Isolde pulled Tristan into an embrace. This, of course, rendered the love potion redundant, and so instead of drinking it later in the scene, the two lovers symbolically joined hands and poured it away.

Act II played out in some kind of prison/asylum setting. With no explanation, Isolde and Brangäne, and subsequently Tristan and Kurwenal, were hustled on stage as prisoners by yellow-clad toughs. Their actions were observed from the top of the walls by manned spotlights, a clever new context for Tristan’s fulminations against the ‘light’. In the hymn to the night, the two singers turned their backs to the audience and gazed at shadow projections of human figures on the back of the set – a beautiful if ultimately mysterious effect which thankfully had no adverse effects on their audibility. When Marke appeared, he was not so much sorrowing uncle or cuckolded husband as sinister gang-leader: the final scene saw Tristan bound, blindfolded, and eventually stabbed while defenceless.

Act III was strikingly minimalistic: Kurwenal and three other Kareol lackeys sat in a vigil around Tristan’s body downstage right, with everything else shrouded in haze. Tristan’s delirious recollections of Isolde calling him back to life were brilliantly visualised as a series of fantastical encounters with her. An Isolde-double would appear in a prism of light in a different location, often with some disturbing consequence: in one case, the hallucination collapsed into empty clothes at his touch, in another she began bleeding mysteriously after their interaction. The later fight between Marke’s men and Kurwenal’s company was deliberately anti-realistic. After an adequate Liebestod, Isolde was dragged away from her dead lover by the unsympathetic Marke, leaving just a hesitant Brangäne nearby as the curtain fell.

The opera stands or falls by those in the two eponymous roles, and both Stephen Gould and Evelyn Herlitzius offered much as actors and singers, although neither was an unqualified triumph. Gould was underwhelming to start with, but grew into the part as Act II progressed and was especially impressive in the mad scene in Act III. Some of his initial problems were due to his co-star: Herlitzius’s epic vocal heft was not always used with ideal sensitivity, and at full-throttle after the potion scene and at the beginning of the love duet she simply blew Gould away. In the quieter parts of Act II the balance of the partnership worked better.

Iain Paterson was a sympathetic Kurwenal, although his bluff delivery had a little difficulty sailing over some of the noisier orchestral passages. As Brangäne, Christa Mayer was a commanding vocal presence, in contrast to her take on the character as nerve-ridden and hesitant. With fur collar and hat marking him as a pimp, Georg Zeppenfeld was hardly cut out to be a tender Marke, but his Act II monologue was riveting, thanks to utter precision in tone and diction. The smaller roles were all filled competently. However, low lighting made it difficult to read facial expressions, which lessened one’s sense of involvement in the story. But whatever caveats one could find with the performance, experiencing the unique Bayreuth sonic blend is a thrilling experience, something every Wagnerian should do at least once.